Business Suit, Briefcase, and Handkerchief: The Material Culture of Retro Masculinity in The Intern

Alison Bartlett

Abstract


Introduction

In Nancy Meyers’s 2015 film The Intern a particular kind of masculinity is celebrated through the material accoutrements of Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro). A retired 70-year-old manager, Ben takes up a position as a “senior” Intern in an online clothing distribution company run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Jules’s company, All About Fit, is the embodiment of the Gen Y creative workplace operating in an old Brooklyn warehouse. Ben’s presence in this environment is anachronistic and yet also stylishly retro in an industry where “vintage” is a mode of dress but also offers alternative ethical values (Veenstra and Kuipers). The alternative that Ben offers is figured through his sartorial style, which mobilises a specific kind of retro masculinity made available through his senior white male body. This paper investigates how and why retro masculinity is materialised and embodied as both a set of values and a set of objects in The Intern.

Three particular objects are emblematic of this retro masculinity and come to stand in for a body of desirable masculine values: the business suit, the briefcase, and the handkerchief. In the midst of an indie e-commerce garment business, Ben’s old-fashioned wardrobe registers a regular middle class managerial masculinity from the past that is codified as solidly reliable and dependable. Sherry Turkle reminds us that “material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity” (6), and these impact our thinking, our emotional life, and our memories. The suit, briefcase, and handkerchief are material reminders of this reliable masculine past. The values they evoke, as presented in this film, seem to offer sensible solutions to the fast pace of twenty-first century life and its reconfigurations of family and work prompted by feminism and technology.

The film’s fetishisation of these objects of retro masculinity could be mistaken for nostalgia, in the way that vintage collections elide their political context, and yet it also registers social anxiety around gender and generation amid twenty-first century social change. Turner reminds us of the importance of film as a social practice through which “our culture makes sense of itself” (3), and which participates in the ongoing negotiation of the meanings of gender. While masculinity is often understood to have been in crisis since the advent of second-wave feminism and women’s mass entry into the labour force, theoretical scrutiny now understands masculinity to be socially constructed and changing, rather than elemental and stable; performative rather than innate; fundamentally political, and multiple through the intersection of class, race, sexuality, and age amongst other factors (Connell; Butler). While Connell coined the term “hegemonic masculinity,” to indicate “masculinity which occupies the hegemonic position in a given pattern of gender relations” (76), it is always intersectional and contestable. Ben’s hegemonic position in The Intern might be understood in relation to what Buchbinder identifies as “inadequate” or “incompetent” masculinities, which offer a “foil for another principal character” (232), but this movement between margin and hegemony is always in process and accords with the needs that structure the story, and its attendant social anxieties. This film’s fetishising of Ben’s sartorial style suggests a yearning for a stable and recognisable masculine identity, but in order to reinstall these meanings the film must ignore the political times from which they emerge.

The construction of retro masculinity in this case is mapped onto Ben’s body as a “senior.” As Gilleard notes, ageing bodies are usually marked by a narrative of corporeal decline, and yet for men of hegemonic privilege, non-material values like seniority, integrity, wisdom, and longevity coalesce to embody “the accumulation of cultural or symbolic capital in the form of wisdom, maturity or experience” (1). Like masculinity, then, corporeality is understood to be a set of unstable signifiers produced through particular cultural discourses.

The Business Suit

The business suit is Ben Whittaker’s habitual work attire, so when he comes out of retirement to be an intern at the e-commerce company he re-adopts this professional garb. The solid outline of a tailored and dark-coloured suit signals a professional body that is separate, autonomous and impervious to the outside world, according to Longhurst (99). It is a body that is “proper,” ready for business, and suit-ed to the professional corporate world, whose values it also embodies (Edwards 42). In contrast, the costuming code of the Google generation of online marketers in the film is defined as “super cas[ual].” This is a workplace where the boss rides her bicycle through the open-space office and in which the other 219 workers define their individuality through informal dress and decoration. In this environment Ben stands out, as Jules comments on his first day:

Jules: Don’t feel like you have to dress up.
Ben: I’m comfortable in a suit if it’s okay.
Jules: No, it’s fine. [grins] Old school.
Ben: At least I’ll stand out.
Jules: I don’t think you’ll need a suit to do that.

The anachronism of a 70-year-old being an intern is materialised through Ben’s dress code. The business suit comes to represent Ben not only as old school, however, but as a “proper” manager.

As the embodiment of a successful working woman, entrepreneur Jules Ostin appears to be the antithesis of the business-suit model of a manager. Consciously not playing by the book, her company is both highly successful, meeting its five-year objectives in only nine months, and highly vulnerable to disasters like bedbugs, delivery crises, and even badly wrapped tissue. Shaped in her image, the company is often directly associated with Jules herself, as Ben continually notes, and this comes to include the mix of success, vulnerability, and disaster. In fact, the success of her company is the reason that she is urged to find a “seasoned” CEO to run the company, indicating the ambiguous, simultaneous guise of success and disaster.

This relationship between individual corporeality and the corporate workforce is reinforced when it is revealed that Ben worked as a manager for 40 years in the very same warehouse, reinforcing his qualities of longevity, reliability, and dependability.  He oversaw the printing of the physical telephone book, another quaint material artefact of the past akin to Ben, which is shown to have literally shaped the building where the floor dips over in the corner due to the heavy printers. The differences between Ben and Jules as successive generations of managers in this building operate as registers of social change inflected with just a little nostalgia. Indeed, the name of Jules’s company, All About Fit, seems to refer more to the beautifully tailored “fit” of Ben’s business suit than to any of the other clothed bodies in the company.

Not only is the business suit fitted to business, but it comes to represent a properly managed body as well. This is particularly evident when contrasted with Jules’s management style. Over the course of the film, as she endures a humiliating series of meetings, sends a disastrous email to the wrong recipient, and juggles her strained marriage and her daughter’s school schedule, Jules is continuously shown to teeter on the brink of losing control. Her bodily needs are exaggerated in the movie: she does not sleep and apparently risks “getting fat” according to her mother’s research; then when she does sleep it is in inappropriate places and she snores loudly; she forgets to eat, she cries, gets drunk and vomits, gets nervous, and gets emotional. All of these outpourings are in situations that Ben remedies, in his solid reliable suited self. As Longhurst reminds us,

The suit helps to create an illusion of a hard, or at least a firm and “proper,” body that is autonomous, in control, rational and masculine. It gives the impression that bodily boundaries continually remain intact and reduce potential embarrassment caused by any kind of leakage. (99)

Ben is thus suited to manage situations in ways that contrast to Jules, whose bodily emissions and emotional dramas reinforce her as feminine, chaotic, and emotionally vulnerable. As Gatens notes of our epistemological inheritance, “women are most often understood to be less able to control the passions of the body and this failure is often located in the a priori disorder or anarchy of the female body itself” (50). Transitioning these philosophical principles to the 21st-century workplace, however, manifests some angst around gender and generation in this film.

Despite the film’s apparent advocacy of successful working women, Jules too comes to prefer Ben’s model of corporeal control and masculinity. Ben is someone who makes Jules “feel calm, more centred or something. I could use that, obviously,” she quips. After he leads the almost undifferentiated younger employees Jason, Davis, and Lewis on a physical email rescue, Jules presents her theory of men amidst shots at a bar to celebrate their heist:

Jules: So, we were always told that we could be anything, do anything, and I think guys got, maybe not left behind but not quite as nurtured, you know? I mean, like, we were the generation of You go, Girl. We had Oprah. And I wonder sometimes how guys fit in, you know they still seem to be trying to figure it out. They’re still dressing like little boys, they’re still playing video games …

Lewis: Well they’ve gotten great.

Davis: I love video games.

Ben: Oh boy.

Jules: How, in one generation, have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to … [Lewis, Davis, and Jason look down at themselves]

Jules: Take Ben, here. A dying breed. Look and learn boys, because if you ask me, this is what cool is.

Jules’s excessive drinking in this scene, which is followed by her vomiting into a rubbish bin, appears to reinforce Ben’s stable sobriety, alongside the culture of excess and rapid change associated with Jules through her gender and generation.

Jules’s adoption of Ben as the model of masculinity is timely, given that she consistently encounters “sexism in business.” After every meeting with a potential CEO Jules complains of their patronising approach—calling her company a “chick site,” for example. And yet Ben echoes the sartorial style of the 1960s Mad Men era, which is suffused with sexism. The tension between Ben’s modelling of old-fashioned chivalry and those outdated sexist businessmen who never appear on-screen remains linked, however, through the iconography of the suit. In his book Mediated Nostalgia, Lizardi notes a similar tendency in contemporary media for what he calls “presentist versions of the past […] that represent a simpler time” (6) where viewers are constructed as ”uncritical citizens of our own culture” (1). By heroising Ben as a model of white middle-class managerial masculinity that is nostalgically enduring and endearing, this film betrays a yearning for such a “simpler time,” despite the complexities that hover just off-screen.

Indeed, most of the other male characters in the film are found wanting in comparison to the retro masculinity of Ben. Jules’s husband Matt appears to be a perfect modern “stay-at-home-dad” who gives up his career for Jules’s business start-up. Yet he is found to be having an affair with one of the school mums. Lewis’s clothes are also condemned by Ben: “Why doesn’t anyone tuck anything in anymore?” he complains. Jason does not know how to speak to his love-interest Becky, expecting that texting and emailing sad emoticons will suffice, and Davis is unable to find a place to live. Luckily Ben can offer advice and tutelage to these men, going so far as to house Davis and give him one of his “vintage” ties to wear. Jules endorses this, saying she loves men in ties.

The Briefcase

If a feature of Ben’s experienced managerial style is longevity and stability, then these values are also attached to his briefcase. The association between Ben and his briefcase is established when the briefcase is personified during preparations for Ben’s first day: “Back in action,” Ben tells it.  According to Atkinson, the briefcase is a “signifier of executive status […] entwined with a ‘macho mystique’ of concealed technology” (192). He ties this to the emergence of Cold War spy films like James Bond and traces it to the development of the laptop computer. This mix of mobility, concealment, glamour, and a touch of playboy adventurousness in a mass-produced material product manifested the values of the corporate world in latter 20th-century work culture and rendered the briefcase an important part of executive masculinity. 

Ben’s briefcase is initially indicative of his anachronistic position in All About Fit. While Davis opens his canvas messenger bag to reveal a smartphone, charger, USB drive, multi-cable connector, and book, Ben mirrors this by taking out his glasses case, set of pens, calculator, fliptop phone, and travel clock. Later in the film he places a print newspaper and leather bound book back into the case. Despite the association with a pre-digital age, the briefcase quickly becomes a product associated with Ben’s retro style. Lewis, at the next computer console, asks about its brand:

Ben: It’s a 1973 Executive Ashburn Attaché. They don’t make it anymore.
Lewis: I’m a little in love with it.
Ben: It’s a classic Lewis. It’s unbeatable.

The attaché case is left over from Ben’s past in executive management as VP for sales and advertising. This was a position he held for twenty years, during his past working life, which was spent with the same company for over 40 years. Ben’s long-serving employment record has the same values as his equally long-serving attaché case: it is dependable, reliable, ages well, and outlasts changes in fashion.

The kind of nostalgia invested in Ben and his briefcase is reinforced extradiagetically through the musical soundtracks associated with him. Compared to the undifferentiated upbeat tracks at the workplace, Ben’s scenes feature a slower-paced sound from another era, including Ray Charles, Astrud Gilberto, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman. These classics are a point of connection with Jules, who declares that she loves Billie Holiday. Yet Jules is otherwise characterised by upbeat, even frantic, timing. She hates slow talkers, is always on the move, and is renowned for being late for meetings and operating on what is known as “Jules Standard Time.” In contrast, like his music, Ben is always on time: setting two alarm clocks each night, driving shorter and more efficient routes, seeing things at just the right time, and even staying at work until the boss leaves. He is reliable, steady, and orderly. He restores order both to the office junk desk and to the desk of Jules’s personal assistant Becky. These characteristics of order and timeliness are offered as an alternative to the chaos of 21st-century global flows of fashion marketing. Like his longevity, time is measured and managed around Ben. Even his name echoes that veritable keeper of time, Big Ben.

The Handkerchief

The handkerchief is another anachronistic object that Ben routinely carries, concealed inside his suit rather than flamboyantly worn on the outside pocket. A neatly ironed square of white hanky, it forms a notable part of Ben’s closet, as Davis notices and enquires about:

Davis: Okay what’s the deal with the handkerchief? I don’t get that at all.

Ben: It’s essential. That your generation doesn’t know that is criminal. The reason for carrying a handkerchief is to lend it. Ask Jason about this. Women cry Davis. We carry it for them. One of the last vestiges of the chivalrous gent.

Indeed, when Jules’s personal assistant Becky bursts into tears because her skills and overtime go unrecognised, Ben is able to offer the hanky to Jason to give her as a kind of white flag, officially signaling a ceasefire between Becky and Jason. This scene is didactic: Ben is teaching Jason how to talk to a woman with the handkerchief as a material prop to prompt the occasion. He also offers advice to Becky to keep more regular hours, and go out and have fun (with Jason, obviously). Despite Becky declaring she “hates girls who cry at work,” this reaction to the pressures of a contemporary work culture that is irregular, chaotic, and never-ending is clearly marking gender, as the handkerchief also marks a gendered transaction of comfort.

The handkerchief functions as a material marker of the “chivalrous gent” partly due to the number of times women are seen to cry in this film. In one of Ben’s first encounters with Jules she is crying in a boardroom, when it is suggested that she find a CEO to manage the company. Ben is clearly embarrassed, as is Jules, indicating the inappropriateness of such bodily emissions at work and reinforcing the emotional currency of women in the workplace. Jules again cries while discussing her marriage crisis with Ben, a scene in which Ben comments it is “the one time when he doesn’t have a hanky.” By the end of the film, when Jules and Matt are reconciling, she suggests: “It would be great if you were to carry a handkerchief.” The remaking of modern men into the retro style of Ben is more fully manifested in Davis who is depicted going to work on the last day in the film in a suit and tie. No doubt a handkerchief lurks hidden within.

Conclusion

The yearning that emerges for a masculinity of yesteryear means that the intern in this film, Ben Whittaker, becomes an internal moral compass who reminds us of rapid social changes in gender and work, and of their discomfits. That this should be mapped onto an older, white, heterosexual, male body is unsurprising, given the authority traditionally invested in such bodies. Ben’s retro masculinity, however, is a fantasy from a fictional yesteryear, without the social or political forces that render those times problematic; instead, his material culture is fetishised and stripped of political analysis. Ben even becomes the voice of feminism, correcting Jules for taking the blame for Matt’s affair. Buchbinder argues that the more recent manifestations in film and television of “inadequate or incomplete” masculinity can be understood as “enacting a resistance to or even a refusal of the coercive pressure of the gender system” (235, italics in original), and yet The Intern’s yearning for a slow, orderly, mature, and knowing male hero refuses much space for alternative younger models. Despite this apparently unerring adulation of retro masculinity, however, we are reminded of the sexist social culture that suits, briefcases, and handkerchiefs materialise every time Jules encounters one of the seasoned CEOs jostling to replace her. The yearning for a stable masculinity in this film comes at the cost of politicising the past, and imagining alternative models for the future.

References

Atkinson, Paul. “Man in a Briefcase: The Social Construction of the Laptop Computer and the Emergence of a Type Form.” Journal of Design History 18.2 (2005): 191-205. 

Buchbinder, David. “Enter the Schlemiel: The Emergence of Inadequate of Incompetent Masculinities in Recent Film and Television.” Canadian Review of American Studies 38.2 (2008): 227-245.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Connell, R.W. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.

Edwards, Tim. Fashion in Focus: Concepts, Practices and Politics. London: Routledge, 2010.

Gatens, Moira. Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Gilleard, Chris, and Paul Higgs. Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment. London: Anthem, 2014.

Lizardi, Ryan. Mediated Nostalgia: Individual Memory and Contemporary Mass Media. London: Lexington Books, 2015.

Longhurst, Robyn. Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. London: Routledge, 2001.

Meyers, Nancy, dir. The Intern. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015.

Turkle, Sherry. “The Things That Matter.” Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Ed. Sherry Turkle. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

Veenstra, Aleit, and Giselinde Kuipers. “It Is Not Old-Fashioned, It Is Vintage: Vintage Fashion and the Complexities of 21st Century Consumption Practices.” Sociology Compass 7.5 (2013): 355-365.


Keywords


material culture, retro masculinity, film studies,



Copyright (c) 2016 Alison Bartlett

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